“Playing the second-ever single alongside brand-new compositions brings a degree of eccentricity that’s important to Soft Machine”: The new line-up’s new album Other Doors

Soft Machine
(Image credit: Mariia Korneeva)

The article below was published just before the death of drummer John Marshall in September 2023, at the age of 82.

It’s been five years since Soft Machine released their last studio album, Hidden Details. That’s a rather leisurely pace compared to back in the 70s, when bands signed to major record labels found themselves under a contractual obligation to put out at least one, sometimes two records a year. These days, operating in the independent sector, those kinds of external demands have all but disappeared. Nevertheless there are other pressures and considerations to take into account, according to John Etheridge, Soft Machine guitarist and de facto leader of the group.

“I was personally very keen to get this album done because I really felt it was our last chance to have John Marshall in the studio,” he says, speaking about the drummer he first worked with in Soft Machine after replacing Allan Holdsworth in 1975. “We’ve worked through the years together intermittently ever since. His drumming always meant a lot to me.”

Something of a legend among industry circles and very much regarded as the drummer’s drummer, Marshall enjoyed a long professional career that began in the early 1960s and would go on to encompass pop, blues, rock and jazz. His incisive work with Graham Collier, Nucleus, the Jack Bruce band and Eberhard Weber’s Colours all form a remarkable CV; but it’s his association with Soft Machine for which he remains best known.

When he joined in January 1972, he walked into a band in crisis following the sacking of Phil Howard in the middle of recording Fifth. Marshall’s ability to reconcile freer percussive ideas with his clarity, articulation and driving force would frame the group’s rhythmic impetus and definition. Beset by health issues, Marshall decided to retire at 81, so Etheridge urgently wanted to get the new album, Other Doors, in the can before then. “We booked into the studio for five days, but John was only able to do the first three. However, they were three really good days and we had enough to be able to finish the album. John sounds terrific.”

Theo Travis – saxophonist, and flautist with Softs since 2006, who first worked with Marshall in the late 90s, recording and releasing the album Bodywork – has nothing but praise for Marshall’s qualities as a player. “Many drummers will want to show you what they can do with their best licks. But John plays what’s right for the music. He’s such a musical drummer and makes a lot of compositional-type rhythms and shapes within his playing. That’s just one of the great things about what he does. We were really happy about what he did on this album, contributing so much with his sound and melodic approach.”

Their latest album finds them moving seamlessly between spontaneous improvisation, pop-tinged ebullience, muscular rock and visceral jazz, often haloed in shimmering electronica and ambient overtones. As with previous eras of the band, they resist easy categorisation. “I hate the word fusion,” says Etheridge with passion. “When I think of fusion, I think of some smart-arse Californian playing a million notes, bang on, absolutely. Spot on. But we’re not a fusion band at all.”

Though largely seen as something of a British musical institution, Soft Machine have always enjoyed an international appeal. Early in the band’s career they were celebrated in France’s pop and avant-garde scenes, and a little later in the USA, touring then with Jimi Hendrix. Their particular blend of expressive virtuosity and sometimes sombre musicality went down well in Europe throughout the 70s; more recently, Japan and South America have also embraced the Softs. Travis recalls playing in Chile in the summer of 2022 and the group receiving something of a heroes’ welcome on what was their first visit.

“It was amazing. It was a big, big venue. I’d played there when I was touring with Steven Wilson’s group. They were very enthusiastic and a mixture of young and old and a few women, strangely,” he laughs. The audience’s response to Soft Machine has been encouraging on a number of levels, he says. Whether it’s in large-scale venues or the smaller, more intimate occasions, the intensity with which the band tackle old and new material alike suggests that punters are making profound connections to what they hear that can be life-changing.

“There’s such importance in this music to so many people’s lives. I think it’s touching that it means so much to them. There are many areas of music which I play with, such as a lot of jazz stuff, and you do it and afterward, people say things like, ‘Good gig!’ or whatever, but not like it means something in the same way as a band that have history and a cultural significance in the way that Soft Machine have.”

That’s a theme that bassist Fred Thelonious Baker readily warms to. A veteran of the Canterbury scene, having performed and recorded in a long-running duo with Matching Mole/Hatfield And The North’s Phil Miller and In Cahoots, whose line-up also included Elton Dean and Pip Pyle, Baker recognises the broad appeal that Soft Machine subtly exerts. “We recently played a large theatre in Istanbul that was more or less sold out,” he recalls. “There were lots of young people and they were coming up after the gig wanting things signed, which was fantastic.”

Being able to include new material and draw upon the older repertoire not only makes the concert stage a dynamic place to be for the musicians, but breathes a fresh vitality into compositions that would otherwise remain something captured long ago, preserved in the amber of vinyl or CD. “It’s keeping the music alive and in the present, enabling people to experience music that they might only have heard on record. I’m so glad to be part of it,” he says.

If Other Doors represents John Marshall’s final recording with the group, it also marks Baker’s first. In 2021 he took over as bassist for the group after Roy Babbington’s decision to stand down. Babbington, who first appeared as a guest alongside Hugh Hopper on 1971’s Fourth, appears on two tracks on the new album, including a duet with Baker on Now! Is The Time and providing the sinuous bass line for Penny Hitch, on which Baker solos. The Karl Jenkins-composed piece possesses a poignancy, with Babbington and Marshall replaying the parts they first jointly laid down on 1973’s Seven: a sense that one generation is handing the baton over to another.

Etheridge is especially pleased to see Baker in the group. “I first played with Fred in 1980 when he was this 20-year-old whiz-kid, so Fred and I have had a relationship for years. He was exactly the right person to take over from Roy. Not only is he a great musician but he’s got eccentricity and that’s what we need. We don’t want a straightforward fusion virtuoso. Technically fantastic but not the sort of aggressive virtuoso, he’s absolutely the perfect choice.”

Baker takes the lead on Joy Of A Toy, first heard on Soft Machine’s 1968 debut. The rather whimsical number was done at Theo Travis’ suggestion and has been part of the group’s live setlist for a while now. “I’ve added some extra harmonies and other things to it,” explains Baker, “so it’s got my stamp as well as going back right down to Kevin Ayers’ original. It somehow fitted in with all of the new material as well as the older tracks we do.”

Etheridge agrees but roars with laughter when he remembers the number being recommended. “I’d never heard the original version. I had to go and seek it out. It’s got a nice bounce about it and an atmosphere that’s exactly what we’re after. As a group, we’re always looking for variety, not for its own sake but to cover a broader territory. So, to be playing the second-ever Soft Machine single alongside brand-new compositions is a really good approach. It brings a degree of eccentricity that’s important to Soft Machine.”

For Theo Travis, there’s a rich combination of elements forming what he believes to be Soft Machine’s essence. “I like the freedom, I like the variety of colours, the band’s improvisation. The fact that it has such a strong catalogue of music going back over 50 years. For me, it’s a subtle combination of rock, jazz, improv, melody, risk-taking, textures and experimental looping. It’s all the things I like to play in.”

For some long-lived groups, history can be a millstone around the neck of players, tamping down creativity under the weight of what has gone before. The current formation of Soft Machine, however, balances those two potentially conflicting elements with verve, keen to renew the old material and infuse it with the spirit of the here and now. As John Marshall said when outlining his approach to joining the group: “The music begins here.”

With Marshall retired, John Etheridge, now 75, is the last surviving member from the band’s 70s heyday. Despite his standing as a hugely respected player in jazz circles, he has no hesitation in declaring Soft Machine’s hybrid mix of jazz and rock to be his spiritual home. “When I pick up the guitar and play under the banner of Soft Machine I feel different to any of my other gigs. Of all things I do, it’s by far my favourite. When I play with Soft Machine, that is when I really feel like I’m contacting the player I want to be.”

The drummer’s tale: Who is Asaf Sirkis?

Drummer and composer Asaf Sirkis officially took over from John Marshall in 2023 – though he’s no stranger to the group, having previously filled in for him on recent tours. Described by Bill Bruford as a “master of creative surprise” and lauded by Robert Wyatt, who comments: “There’s nothing he can’t do when he puts his mind to it.”

The first Soft Machine album Sirkis recalls hearing in his teens was 1975’s Bundles, featuring Allan Holdsworth. However, his favourite track is The Tale Of Taliesin from 1976’s Softs. “I just love the way this tune tells a story and the way that John Etheridge plays it.”

Aged 54 and already busy with an international career, being part of Soft Machine is especially exciting, he says. “Obviously, I’m a relative latecomer compared to the others but it’s the music I grew up listening to. It’s like the closing of a big, big circle for me. Playing with John, Theo and Fred is great for me not only because of the music but because of their improvisational approach and the artistic freedom I have as a drummer to express myself in the moment.” 

Sid Smith

Sid's feature articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Prog, Classic Rock, Record Collector, Q, Mojo and Uncut. A full-time freelance writer with hundreds of sleevenotes and essays for both indie and major record labels to his credit, his book, In The Court Of King Crimson, an acclaimed biography of King Crimson, was substantially revised and expanded in 2019 to coincide with the band’s 50th Anniversary. Alongside appearances on radio and TV, he has lectured on jazz and progressive music in the UK and Europe.  

A resident of Whitley Bay in north-east England, he spends far too much time posting photographs of LPs he's listening to on Twitter and Facebook.